Thanksgiving first became an official holiday in the USA in 1863. Though giving thanks at this time of year is one of the oldest festivals, and has probably been around since humans first started to forage and cultivate the land.
Nowadays Thanksgiving has become synonymous with the American tradition. Still, there are a number of other variants of this day celebrated around this time of year in different parts of the world. While the origins and customs may vary, they all revolve around the concept of gratitude.
To find our first Thanksgiving holiday alternative, we don’t have to stray too far from America. The Thanksgiving holiday tradition in Canada dates back to when the English explorer, Martin Frobisher, came upon the land we now know as Canada while searching for a Northern passage to the Orient.
When Frobisher arrived in Canada on his third voyage in 1578, he held a formal ceremony where he gave thanks for surviving the long journey – one of his ships had been lost on the way. Frobisher celebrated with salt beef and peas. South of the border, it would be another 43 years before the Pilgrims sat down to celebrate their first Thanksgiving meal.
Parliament made it a national holiday in 1879. But in 1957, Parliament moved it from November 6th to the second Monday in October, declaring, “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
On now to the Caribbean where three countries observe Thanksgiving holidays.
Both the US and Canada give thanks for the successful founding of European settlements. The Saint Lucian version is more in line with the traditional harvest festivals that would have inspired those other North American thanksgivings.
Completing a successful harvest would have been one of the most important events in the year of any community. In Asia, for instance, strip away the religious trappings from many of the major festivals and you’ll find most are harvest festivals underneath.
In the Eastern Caribbean, October also means the winding down of the Hurricane season, which tends to peak between August and September. Avoiding any major disasters from Hurricanes is another reason to clink glasses, play music and eat lots of food.
This island nation’s version of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the American tradition but everything to do with America. Held on October 25th every year, Grenada’s Thanksgiving marks the anniversary of the 1983 U.S. military invasion to restore order after the death of deposed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. American soldiers who were stationed in the country the following month told locals about their upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, its signature feast, and its intention to focus on gratitude. To show their own gratitude, the people of Grenada worked in secret to surprise the soldiers with meals like those they longed for, complete with turkey and all the trimmings. Today, the holiday is celebrated in formal ceremonies of remembrance.
TURKS & CAICOS ISLANDS
The day has been a public holiday in this British Overseas Territory since it was legislated for by the Turks and Caicos government in 2014. Although it is celebrated on the day after Thanksgiving in the US, it has no other connection to the American holiday.
In announcing the new holiday, Premier Rufus Ewing said: “This is meant to be a religious holiday with persons giving thanks to the Almighty God and also to appreciate all of our religious beliefs during this period.”
In the Turks and Caicos islands, this holiday takes place at the end of the hurricane season, which is an occasion for any Caribbean country located in the potential path of hurricanes and tropical storms to give thanks for. Certainly, the nation has suffered from storm damage in several years, so giving thanks is appropriate to either recognise another season has passed without major disruption or give thanks that the recovery process is well underway.
Kinrō Kansha no Hi is a national public holiday in Japan that is celebrated every November 23rd. Derived from ancient harvest festival rituals named Niinamesai. The history of Niinamesai goes back many centuries; the first written account is found in the Chronicle of Japan – one of the oldest histories of Japan, dating from 720 – which says that a Niinamesai took place in November 678.
While Niinamesai traditions reach back thousands of years, its modern meaning is more tied to a celebration of hard work and community involvement, hence its translation: Labor Thanksgiving Day. After the second world war, Labor Thanksgiving Day was established to mark the fact that fundamental human rights were guaranteed and the rights of workers were greatly expanded in the postwar constitution. Today it’s celebrated with labor organization-led festivities, and children creating crafts and gifts for local police officers.
GERMANY (Austria and Switzerland)
A religious holiday that often takes place on the first Sunday of October, Erntedankfest, also known as Erntedankfest, is essentially an autumn harvest celebration that gives thanks for a good year and good fortune. In rural areas, the harvest aspect might be taken more literally, but churches in cities also hold festivities. This might include a procession with an Erntekrone, a harvest crown made of grain, flowers, and fruit.
On this holiday, people enjoy food, music, a parade, church services, and family fun. Foods vary, but generally, families eat turkey. Other foods include bread, potato dumplings, gravy, and vegetables.
Depending on the region, the holiday is celebrated between September and October. In Germany, this annual harvest celebration is generally held on the first Sunday in October. In Switzerland, Erntedank is celebrated in mid-September.
A variation on America’s Thanksgiving can be found in the West African nation of Liberia, which was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the U.S. This national public holiday is celebrated on the first Thursday of November. Liberians fill their churches with baskets of local fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples; an auction for the baskets is held after the service, and then families retreat to their homes to feast. Concerts and dancing have evolved as a distinctive part of Liberia’s Thanksgiving traditions.
Before the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower for the New World, they lived in Leiden in the Netherlands, where they settled after leaving England to escape religious persecution. They lived and worked in Leiden from 1609 to 1620. Some even suggest the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving found inspiration in Leiden’s annual commemoration of the breaking of the Spanish siege of 1574.
The people of Leiden still celebrate the American settlers who once lived there with a non-denominational church service on the fourth Thursday of November. Afterwards, cookies and coffee are offered.
While Thanksgiving is not a public holiday in the Netherlands, it’s celebrated by orthodox Protestant churches on the first Wednesday in November.
This small and remote Pacific Island that sits between Australia and New Zealand owes its Thanksgiving to contact with the U.S., specifically with its whalers in the mid-1890s. This public holiday began when American trader Isaac Robinson proposed decorating the All Saints Church with palm leaves and lemons, hoping to attract whalers to a Thanksgiving service/celebration. Though Robinson passed away before the following Thanksgiving, the tradition caught on. Now on the last Wednesday of November, families bring fruit and vegetables to the church to celebrate, tying cornstalks to pews, and decorating the altar with fresh flowers. Where they would once recollect their offerings afterwards, now these are sold to raise money for the church.
Finally, let’s return to the Americas and Brazil, which also also celebrates a Thanksgiving festival inspired by the American holiday. This celebration is called Dia de Ação de Graças and is directly tied to the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in the United States. The story goes that Brazilian ambassador Joaquim Nabuco saw Thanksgiving while visiting the United States in the 1940s. He loved it so much, he brought up the idea to then-President Gaspar Dutra. In 1949, the date was established in Brazil through Law No. 781.
Although it isn’t an official holiday, it’s celebrated by many families in the country. Like Thanksgiving in the United States, it takes place on the fourth Thursday of November. On this day, families gather and feast on turkey, stuffed chicken, corn stuffing, and lemon or pumpkin pie.